Asperger’s and Enrichment (My Sixth Form Transition)

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When I got back to school in sixth form after so long off, it was weird. Everyone had raved about the jump from GCSEs to A levels, how much harder it would be. But personally, at the start of the year, I was surprised. I didn’t find my subjects (English Literature, History and Spanish) all that difficult, and I kept on top of work fine. If anything, I was a bit bored. 

It became apparent that I’d gone in expecting it to be much harder than it was, and part of that, I believe, was because I’d sort of settled into the level of stress that I’d experienced at the end of the GCSE course. Due to the COVID rearrangements, I didn’t do my exams, but rather ‘in-class assessments’, which were basically exams only there were twice as many and they were stretched out over a period of six weeks. Therefore, I’d gotten used to functioning at that extremely high level of stress, doing tons of revision, constantly, almost on the edge of burnout. So the return to a ‘normal’, baseline workload at the start of year 12 came as something of a surprise. 

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Asperger’s and COVID-19.

The pandemic has been a turbulent time for all of us, so I wanted to talk a little bit about my experience of being on the spectrum during lockdown and how COVID has affected me as an aspie. 

Before the first lockdown, I was in quite a bit of denial about what the pandemic was going to entail. I don’t follow the news, so the first I heard about COVID was from school gossip. When my peers expressed the sentiment that the school would close due to the pandemic, I dismissed it out of hand. The school, close? That was unthinkable. School was foundational to my routines. In my mind, it was impossible that it should close…

And then we all know what happened. 

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The Anxiety…

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Where do I begin? Anxiety is a very troublesome emotion, but is one that varies hugely depending on the individual. For me, anxiety is usually a growing sensation of being on edge, but can also be a feeling of detachment, and surrealism, which in turn creates panic.

The latter sensation often occurs when my routine is interrupted. For example, recently my school was closed due to the snow. As much as I was relieved and happy to get a day off and have fun in the snow, for the rest of the day, I felt quite disconnected – like things weren’t real. This wasn’t a pleasant experience, and it also led to a lack of focus on my part, as I felt like I almost couldn’t remember what day it was because nothing was fitting with the routine. The feeling of detachment also made me panic – it reminded me all too much of a similar feeling I get when I’m dreaming a nightmare but I can’t control it.

The former, however – the sensation of being on edge – I most commonly feel when I am surrounded by lots of people. It’s just your classic feeling of nervousness, and any person who is shy or introverted will have likely experienced it. When I get anxious, a lot of the telltale signs appear: walking on tiptoes, looking down, fidgeting and also that subtle stiffness when I move.

In situations like the one directly above, there isn’t always necessarily a solution. I tend to either seek out a distraction (e.g headphones, reading or even chatting with close friends or family if they are present), or to make a game out of it; pretending I’m on a mission to infiltrate a building or street and I have to act natural in order to remain undetected. It’s a little childish, I’ll admit, and I don’t use that strategy often, but thinking of it that way can sometimes help calm me down, because it’s a challenge to solve that I can think about in the same way as a puzzle, rather than dwelling on how many people there are and panicking about what to do if they approach me.

Anxiety, as I have mentioned before, is yellow in my eyes, and when I experience it, I often find it causes my mind to race, and the music track going round in my head almost always speeds up. In previous posts, I said it felt like the floor had dropped out from beneath me. That is partly true, but that is more when I am worried I have done something wrong, rather than just being nervous. So in a way, to me, anxiety has three meanings.

The transition from Primary School to Secondary School – it’s not all that bad!

I had been at my Primary School for 7 years and was accustomed to the buildings, staff and everyone around me. I‘d had the same teacher for 4 years and had all the support I needed. But when the time came to decide on a Secondary school, things were actually ok. I was taken to have a look at the 2 secondary schools in my area whilst I was in Year5 and then again in Year6 so it wasn’t all too much to take in and I was quite relaxed. Although I like doing things in a traditional way and in a routine, I also like new, fresh starts and a chance to make myself better, so the thought of what a new school could offer me made me feel positive.

We went to the Open Evenings which were really busy and although I was excited and fascinated it was difficult to relax. I spent a lot of time smiling, but still avoiding looking at anyone. Then we went for a private tour which was better and then we met with the head of SENCO at one of the schools. I was included in all of the meetings and although I felt a bit awkward I could tell that the teacher we met knew so much about Aspergers that I felt like I trusted her right away.

Making the decision between the 2 schools was difficult so we sat down as a family and the tactic I used was to list all the pros and cons of each school. Once the decision was made, my primary school and my parents made appointments for me to visit the school – just for half hour at a time. I sat and ate lunch with a teacher so I could see the dining room at its full capacity. I visited and watched the classroom change-overs so I could hear the bell ringing. I saw a break time and got the chance to walk round the school when it was quiet. After every visit I wrote down any questions or requests I had that I hadn’t been brave enough to ask in person.  My mum could email the SENCO and find the answer, or we would arrange another visit. I was given a map and shown the contact book that we would be using. I liked this because I was able to analyse my surroundings, and when given an opportunity to find where I was I was thrilled because using what I’d learnt made me feel confident, even if I was in a new place.

My primary school was especially helpful: towards the end of the year I became part of a small group and we would talk about our worries and feelings with a teaching assistant. She gave us a little book which contained advice and tips on what to expect and importantly, how to respond! My best friend was also going to the same school and our parents both asked if we could be kept together in our Tutor Group. I think that thanks to both schools working together, this was made possible.

Over the summer holiday my new school emailed me my timetable. This was great because I was able to colour code it and put copies on my wall. I was also sent my profile. This is a piece of paper that all my teachers would have before I got there which explained my likes and dislikes. This was brilliant because I knew then that I would not be put in any awful situations – like the teachers telling me to “look at me when I’m speaking to you”. Something which I am just unable to do.

On my first day we had arranged that I would go in with my friend from her house so we didn’t have to worry about meeting somewhere and we could go in together. I was given a timetable and map along with everyone else but I felt confident because I had already seen these before.

I was given a locker and lots of books but it was all very exciting.

So far everything is going really well. There are of course some issues, mainly with not knowing how to respond to other children, there are so many personalities and it can get very busy. What helps me is talking it over with my family as soon as I get out of school and being given a resolution – so for example, the lunch time queue for food can be very busy and jostling so my mum suggested asking the school to put my plate to one side for me to collect. Once I knew I had this option I was able to deal with the queues, knowing that I had a way out but so far I have not needed it.

The SENCO are also very pro active in my school. I find it almost impossible to ask for help, especially when I am upset but the school has teachers specifically to look out for us and one of those teachers was coming to find me every week to make sure I was ok. Now I go to see her every other week. I keep a list in my head of anything that is bothering me and she will go through the types of things I can say to people to help me resolve things.

Everything is really positive. The only negative thing that I can really think of at the moment is that sometimes when someone knows you have Aspergers and they have read about what Aspergers is, they think a “one size fits all”, when it doesn’t. I don’t mind too much because it is really good that they have tried to understand it but sometimes I feel a bit awkward when they are trying to help me but it’s really over the top. It just shows that as Aspie Kids, we are all different and until you get to know us as individuals you won’t know how our needs differ. Because of my communication problems I can’t tell you if you are off track but it’s nice that you’ve tried!

Actually my communication has improved massively since starting secondary school. I know that I only have to be with a teacher for a single lesson, so they are only looking at me for an hour – not like in primary school when it was 6 hours! So I feel like I have a break in the intensity, even if I will be seeing them the next day.

Having Aspergers matters to me but it doesn’t bother me, if that makes sense? I don’t feel I need to tell people if I don’t want to because I think people judge me for me, not because I have Aspergers. My Aspergers is just who I am, it’s not a separate thing. People can’t like me but not like my Aspergers, because it’s the whole of me. If you like me, you like that I’m an Aspiekid, and so far that’s working just fine!

Day at school as an Aspie kid

As an aspie kid, even regular activities such as being at school can be incredibly stressful.

As I enter the school gates, I can sometimes feel anxious simply because I am unsure, even after 7 years at the school.  Am I late? Early? I will glance in the window and discover if any classmates have arrived already. This helps to give reassurance that I am doing the right thing,

After hanging up my bags, and having a momentary conversation with a few classmates in the cloakroom,  I am often reluctant to enter the classroom first. I feel this is a result of previous entries when my teacher has greeted me in the morning.  I dislike it when this happens because I am never certain how to respond. Usually I will mumble a response and attempt to smile away any uncertainty, but it is important to know that I don’t mean any offence by not looking in your direction and not responding confidently.  It is normal for me to avoid eye contact and looking at other people’s faces.  It is important that my inability to obey the phrase ‘look at me when I’m talking to you’ is understood.

During lessons, I become most confident being left to focus on my work. Maths is by far my favourite subject, mainly because I feel I excel at it.  Knowing that I’m doing the right thing is very reassuring for me. However, sometimes direct instructions and questions that are aimed specifically towards me can be a problem .When teachers ask me questions it is far better saying ‘Erin, can you pass me that book?’ rather than ‘Pass me that book please Erin.’ This is because I can become over absorbed in an activity, (especially when reading) resulting in me blocking out any other sounds, until I hear my name. If the question precedes my name, I don’t hear the question I only hear my name. Then I worry because I know I have missed something!

Lunch time can demonstrate a large issue for me; as an aspie kid, I have an enormous sense of right and wrong, therefore, if someone else is misbehaving or just pushing in the queue I can become tense. At times I can actually feel scared. I can’t anticipate when that behaviour will reach its limit. However I will rarely inform anyone else about this during the school day. When I become tense or stressed, I struggle to release my negative emotions which results in me becoming irritable and preferring not to speak. I find that all these emotions just hover in my stomach which leads me to occasional tears and a complete breakdown.

I have a canopy in my class room that I can retreat into but still feel part of the class and importantly, still hear the lesson the teacher is giving. I prefer it this way rather than having to walk out and then worse – back in to the class with everyone looking at me. I need time out to process things – usually after break times because they are so busy.

Home time brings relief to me; if I have been stressed at school I will release all my emotions in the car, explaining it to my mum and calming myself down.

The promise of a new day is a huge consolation; sometimes when something bad happens in the morning and I cry or become deeply annoyed and upset, I just want to start the day again. In my mind I have the concept of every day has to be a good day, and I class days as good, bad, really good, really bad etc. This may seem illogical but I enjoy it. However if a morning has been upsetting, I can become irritable and upset at school for I feel even if I do brilliantly at school today, it can’t be a super good day because I’ve had a bad morning.

I love school. I love learning. It really pleases me when I have done something right. My advice for helping me would be fairly simple: Try and get to know me. Give me praise to boost my confidence – which is low at times. Realise that even though I may be functioning ok, I may actually be in pieces inside. Know that it is impossible for me to keep eye contact with you without it causing me physical discomfort. Try and pick up on my signs that I am uncomfortable –Do I look stiff when I walk? I can’t tell you I am upset about something, but the signs are all there. Teachers will rarely see me upset because I contain it all until I release it at home time. If you notice that I look tense and you understand the reason, the best thing to do is explain things to me gently (if you can, try to make it funny and get me to smile) and reassure me that I’m doing the right thing. This helps me to calm down and become happy again.